Battles at three-and-a-half

Even before Finn existed, there was no doubt that late spring — the end of the academic year — sapped our energies. After Finn’s arrival, May became more than exhausting: it became a time for sleepwalking. But this year, it’s been more like a nightmare.

This is why:

Do you see that face? It’s not the normal silly-Finn-face; it’s the irritable-whiny-Finn face that seems to pop up so much more in recent weeks. Even when we’re doing something fun, like baking or drawing or coloring or stickering or playing, I find it hard to win, and if I’m doing something he doesn’t want me to, like washing his hair or asking him to come to the dinner table, forget it: it’s a battle. Of wills. Or maybe wits — and I’m about out of mine.

An “x” system with consequences worked for us before, but became less effective when Finn turned about three-and-a-half. He suddenly just didn’t feel like listening. We were giving too many x’s and taking too many things away, which was just miserable for everybody. So we decided to incorporate some serious positive reinforcement, playing up the praise for any good behavior and stocking up on little rewards we could pull out when needed. We had a great weekend that way. But then during the school-week he became impossible again, refusing to put on his clothes or shoes, purposely messing up his hair after I combed it, sometimes getting aggressive with me if I went to lift him out of the bath when he refused to get out on his own. He also had a couple of bathroom accidents and a night terror, both of which hadn’t happened in many months, all inside of a couple of days. Clearly, something wasn’t right. Then on the day after his night-terror, he got into trouble at school for biting during an altercation with another boy on the playground.

Of course we talked to Finn to try to understand the circumstances better. We already understood that he’s one of the youngest in his class of 3-5 year-olds and has been exposed to rough “good guy-bad-guy” games we strongly discourage. But although we felt frustrated with what takes place on the school playground, we had to face certain truths: 1) Finn had bitten, 2) he would be kept from playing with other kids for several days as a consequence, and 3) he would be asked to leave the school if he did it again, something we were not prepared to deal with.

We spoke with Finn about why he was being punished at school and repeatedly reminded him of what was at stake. We reminded him to tell a teacher if he’s frustrated and showed him how to take deep breaths to calm himself. We asked him to stay away from the kids who play rough games and suggested other games he could play instead. And when it came to dealing with his attitude at home, we lined up fun activities and rewards for good behavior, but decided to do less negotiating and provide more immediate, calm-but-assertive responses to inappropriate behavior. We resolved to be in control.

We try. The truth is that parenting is kind of like walking during an earthquake: the ground is always shifting beneath us. Finn is constantly changing, there’s so much out of our control, and it’s so hard to come up with any kind of secure plan when the dynamics are so unpredictable.

Perhaps we just need to stop for a bit and stand still in the open air. Our upcoming summer is only a few short weeks away. We’ll spend some time taking calm breaths, time having fun, time-IN together.

Hopefully, we’ll see more of this:

New swimming goggles in the bathtub